Sunday 10 April 2011

I is for Interpretation

No. I'm not a linguist. Poor schoolgirl French and a smattering of German are all I can manage. What I'm talking about is the interpretation of what we say to each other, and how poorly we often communicate.

Take this example: a typical argument between a warring man and woman.

He: What's the matter?
She: There's nothing the matter.
He: Yes there is. Tell me what's wrong.
She: No. I'm fine.
He: Come on. You can tell me. What's the matter?
She: Nothing. There's nothing the matter!

He, taking her at her word, goes off to read the paper, watch the footie or whatever. She, however, is furious, because he shouldn't have taken her at her word. That wasn't her intention at all. Couldn't he see that something was wrong (he could, but she denied it)? How could he just walk off like that when she was so upset? How COULD he? He was supposed to go on and on questioning her until she finally decided to tell him what was wrong (or perhaps until hell froze over).

This is an occasion where someone hears not only what is literally said, but also what he wants to hear. Sometimes, it helps to use a bit of imagination (and past experience) in order to hear what is really being said. For instance, someone may say that they don't want a birthday present. "Don't bother with a present," they say. "I don't need anything."

But often on these occasions, you fail to buy this person a present at your peril, for this is, very likely, a person who really does want a present. Interpretation is all.

Why, when we have one of the richest languages in the world, do we sometimes communicate so poorly, and interpret so inaccurately? After years (especially as a Relate cousellor, and also simply as a human being) I don't have the answer, except to say that if you think your interpretation may be faulty, then check with the speaker to make sure you've got it right. And if you're the speaker, for goodness' sake, say what you mean! If you know you want a big and beautiful birthday present, then ask for one!*

My favourite misinterpretation of all time is the following, which I overheard when I was a staff nurse on a busy medical ward. A young and inexperienced doctor was interviewing a deaf, elderly female patient. Having asked about her heart, breathing, stability etc, he finally arrived at her more intimate functions. The dialogue went thus:

Doctor: Do you have any trouble with your front passage?
Patient: What?
Doctor: Do you have an problems with your front passage?
Patient: What ? I can't hear you!

There followed a lengthy, thoughtful pause. Then:

Patient: Only when my neigbour parks his bicycle in it.

*Reading this through it looks a bit bossy and know-it-all. So I'll just add that in all these examples, I can be just as bad as anyone!


  1. Some of those conversations sound as if they come from 'Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus'. Others sound like learned lines. How many children heard their parents say, when presented with a gift, 'Oh, you shouldn't have.' And now they say it themselves. I trained myself not to say things like this. In fact when I'm presented with a gift I always say exactly what I'm really thinking. And I'm always delighted by gifts so say so.

  2. How I laughed at this post Frances! It is just so true! Sometimes poor Husband just gets that look on his face and says "but you *said* you didn't need help!"

    Loved the story about the young doctor!

    On a more seriosu note, when I used to do Toastmasters, teh first lesson we learned was that we must never assume our listeners know what we're saying. The onus is on us, the speaker, to make sure we're understood as we want to be understood (or interpreted). That applies equally in our private life as well as in speech making!

    Good post!
    Judy (South Africa)

  3. Enjoyed the story of the doctor,
    Wonderful post, made impressive reading,


  4. HI, Lynne. That is so true. A alwasy thini it is harder to be a gracious recipient than a giver.

    Judy, what I left out (in the man/woman scenario) is the "if you don't know, I'm not telling you" line!)

    Hi, Yvonne. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

    Thank you very much for the award, Deirdra (though I've never though of myself as a particularly powerful woman!).

  5. You're right, we should try to say what we really mean - especially if we're a doctor talking to a patient!

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  7. HI, Patsy. I think one of the problems is that we sometimes actually want to be misunderstood!

  8. hahahaha @ the Dr story.

    This is a great post. Often I have been guilty of not communicating to my husband exactly what I want. Just like your example, I end up mad, venting my disgust--And at the end, I hear my husband's most irritating words: "Why didn't you tell me?" LOL


  9. Great post - funny how that scene between the man and woman sounded so familiar! Loved the doctor story - wonder how many patients have no idea what their doctor is talking about sometimes.